August 25, 2014

Invisible Man Is Uncomfortably Current

I started reading INVISIBLE MAN by Ralph Ellison a few days after Michael Brown was killed by a police officer and protests began in Ferguson, Missouri. At first, I didn't think about the novel in the context of the real-life events unfolding. I'd simply gotten around to the book because someone mentioned recently that this year is the centennial of Ellison's birth, and it reminded me that I've been meaning to read his most famous work for ages.

But as I read on in the novel, I was also hearing more and more reports out of Ferguson about violent, racist police response to the demonstrations and the refusal to investigate an officer's shooting of an unarmed young man. I was clued in early on because I was following the right people on Twitter, but I saw that news and outrage was slow to spread elsewhere. Much of the media coverage has been biased, and a lot of public reaction suggests that because these events involve a black youth and a black community, they matter less than other news stories that Americans get worked up about.

INVISIBLE MAN, published in 1952, portrays a black man's experiences of racism, violence, and invisibility in the 1930s. During another month, I might have read it as a record of the past and rejoiced in how much progress has been made. Reading it now, though, I found that many of the later events in the story mirror what's happening in Ferguson, and the book felt sadly current.

In the novel, the unnamed narrator graduates from a southern high school at the top of his class and is rewarded with a college scholarship -- after he endures disgusting humiliation for the amusement of the town's prominent white men. Things go well for him at the black university until a strange incident with a white trustee that leaves him disillusioned. He moves to New York City, and for a while he's highly visible as a prominent activist in Harlem. The story sometimes veers into the surreal, and those parts didn't work that well for me, but for the most part, I was absorbed by the narrator's life and the often appalling series of events he experiences, which are always complicated and nuanced.

The most upsetting synchronicity with reality comes near the end of the book, when a young, unarmed black man is shot by a cop. The narrator gives a moving speech at his funeral, stating, "His name was Clifton and he was black and they shot him. Isn't that enough to tell? Isn't it all you need to know?" Afterwards at a meeting of the activist organization, he says again, "He was shot because he was black and because he resisted. Mainly because he was black," and his white so-called allies criticize him for focusing on race. It all felt too familiar. I found a couple of other writers who were reminded of Tod Clifton when writing about Michael Brown. I recommend these essays by Charles Kinnaird and an anonymous teacher for their thoughts and the longer excerpts from the funeral speech.

I hope you will consider reading INVISIBLE MAN or any other book that addresses prejudice. I hope you'll talk about the shooting of Michael Brown and the unrest in Ferguson. I hope you're angry that events in the United States today can resemble scenes from a book about the racism of almost a century ago. It's hard for individuals to feel that any small actions can make a difference, but I believe that reading, and talking, and being angry are all important paths toward change.

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